Sam Jordison on the Guardian Books Blog meditates on the eco-friendliness of e-books. He mentions a study on the Kindle that estimates a Kindle produces “roughly 168 kg” of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, whereas a single book produces about 7.46 kg—meaning that a Kindle equals about 22.5 books. So once a Kindle has kept someone from buying 23 paper books, the carbon dioxide savings begin.

The author of the study also claims that "a physical book purchased by a person driving to the bookstore creates twice the emissions of a book purchased online." She also notes that e-books could save a lot of carbon dioxide when it comes to replacing textbooks, given that textbooks tend to last only a couple of years before being replaced by new editions.

Of course, there is more than one measure of environmental friendliness; e-books may use less carbon, but e-book devices may be made with toxic materials. And carbon aside, books are made from a renewable resource—lumber companies usually plant two new trees for every one they cut down.

I wonder what might happen if e-books ever do displace a significant amount of printed books. Will a ripple effect cause a lot of unemployment in the lumber industry as there is less demand for paper? Probably not something we need to worry about for a long time.

Related: Ebooks save millions of trees


  1. Paper consumption has increased six-fold over the past 50 years and print book publishing remains steady. The climbing curve of paper consumption will probably overshoot the now flattening energy consumption curve (US per capita). Decline of oil supply will probably speed descent of energy consumption increasing cost of paper and its conversion products. Energy conservation choices may well favor screen based connectivity and reading material delivery. Counter indicators, favoring continued print reading in energy expensive context include its single, one time cost for assured storage and access, its life cycle attributes of renewable resource, recycle technology and biodegradability, inertia of academic authorship and various legibility, navigation and authentication attributes. In the mid-term run, discounting different rates of growth as projected from large or small installed bases, both print and screen reading consumption may continue to grow.

  2. Been here… discussed that. The environmental benefits of e-books over paper may be hard to accept (especially by the lumber industry), but so far there is no reasonable challenge to the established facts (see the other post). E-books are more environmentally friendly than paper. The only part of the equation that still needs serious improvement is the recovery and recycling of electronics, especially to recover toxic materials before they get landfilled. But even given that reality, e-book devices are still better for the environment than paper.

    And yes, loss of jobs will obviously affect the lumber industry. That doesn’t mean those people can’t find other employment, hopefully something that isn’t so damaging to the ecosystem. As society and technology progress, jobs shift and change… that is a given. Job churn is not a good enough reason to avoid progress, though.

  3. Certainly ebooks are friendlier to the environment since there is less waste at the point of print. If a reader wants the print book, the ebook provides a greater incentive to buy and keep the physical book, delaying its inevitable trip to the landfill. And as the need to avoid more clutter in one’s life is paramount these days (no jobs = less room rent = smaller apartments), the value of the ebook is substantially more than as a prioritizing mechanism. As more traditional publishers realize this they will adjust theit operations to POD instead of printing out stacks of books which end up in the remainders warehouses. That will save more trees than are used up now.

  4. I dont think ebooks will completely replace books rather it would be a more convenient alternative. I dont think lumberjacks should worry. Tons of ebooks are available for free checkout limiting the energy involved in a transaction.

  5. Electronic readers will end up in landfills one day they are made with hazardous materials, also look up how the hazardous materials are mined, and the toll it takes on the people mining it.

  6. Not necessarily: Devices can be recycled to recover their materials, including hazardous materials… there’s no reason they have to be landfilled. Globally there is a need for more comprehensive electronics recycling and disposal systems, especially as we use more and more electronic devices. The lack of said systems are no reason to condemn electronics.

    And as long as you’re interested in details, look up the damage that logging does to the ecosystem sometime; you don’t just “replant a few saplings” and everything’s fixed in a few years. Mining is hard on people, but deforestation is hard on the ecosystem, which impacts more than just people.

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